The Internet is growing at a rapid rate, and the cell dividing digitization of business and society is reshaping the global landscape. According to eMarketer, the number of Internet users will surpass 3 billion in 2015, and it estimates that nearly half the world’s population will access the Internet at least once a month by 2018. Wim Elfrink, executive vice president of Cisco, believes the evolution of the Internet has been a four-stage process: basic connectivity, networked economy, immersive experiences, and the Internet of Things (IoT), which is a vision of increasing connectedness between people and things.
According to The Guardian, the Internet of Things can be broadly described as the emergence of countless objects, animals, and even people with uniquely identifiable, embedded devices that are wirelessly connected to the Internet. Nest thermostats, Wi-Fi enabled washing machines, and cars with built-in sensors that can self park and avoid accidents are all examples of IoT. The Internet of Things is Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, HAL, and the operating system in Her all spliced into one vast, interconnected system.
Some in the tech world view IoT as an existential threat -a summoning of an AI demon that will eventually spell the end of the human race. Others take a less apocalyptic viewpoint and see IoT as simply a way to enliven inert objects, the connection and cognition of things working the same way that electricity does. Either way, it is estimated there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020.
In the 1940s, Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher, Jesuit priest, and paleontologist described in his writings a global sphere, “a living unity of single tissue” that contained our collective thoughts, experiences and consciousness. He called it the “Nooshphere” and saw it as a step beyond our physical and biological world. In the ‘90s, Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg wrote an article for Wired called “A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain,” in which she credits Teilhard with visualizing the Net more than half a century before it arrived.
“Teilhard imagined a stage of evolution characterized by a complex membrane of information enveloping the globe and fueled by human consciousness. It sounds a little off-the-wall, until you think about the Net, that vast electronic web encircling the Earth, running point to point through a nervelike constellation.”
Teilhard de Chardin’s Noosphere –“noo” is Greek for mind –may be the prototype for IoT. But who or what is running the Internet? Who or what is in charge of the secret machinations that control smartphones, Nest thermostats, and Wi-Fi enabled washing machines?
The idea that Google is an Illuminati-like monopoly running the Internet solely on its own volition is false. While the search engine is used by more than 60% of Internet connected devices every day, processing more than 150 million searches, there are other clandestine companies involved in controlling the Web. Google has become the de facto owner of the Web because it is the most visible. It is the prime target of conspiracy theorists because it supplies software, hardware, and tech support to U.S. intelligence agencies. In fact, there are reports that CIA seed money helped launch Google, and when rumors surface that a mega-corporation is in bed with the government, conspiracy theories abound.
Apple is accused of controlling the Internet, too. It makes sense. More people connect to the Internet with Apple devices than any other type of technology. However, even amongst Fox Mulder-type conspiracy theorists, the cult of Mac hasn’t quite attained the Evil Empire status that Google has.
But what about the other companies that control the Internet? Who are they? What do they do? And why haven’t most of us heard of them? According to WhoIsHostingThis, Google is just a front man, a patsy, a pawn in Teilhard de Chardin's "complex membrane of information.” The organizations that control the Internet are complex and interrelated, webs within the Web, and where one ends and another begins is as blurry and opaque as the ethics and legalities that govern the system.
5 International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
Established in 1865, the ITU handles international information and communication technologies. It is responsible for radio frequencies on earth and in space, as well as satellite navigation. Today, any nation that has a grievance with the Internet can report it to the ITU. The ITU functions as a sort of Internet peacekeeper or high court; it exists to establish a level playing field, making sure Internet access is fair and open.
4 The Internet Society
Similar to the ITU, the Internet Society is dedicated to keeping the Internet open, transparent, and fair. It aims to promote the democratic belief that the Internet is for everyone. The organization is backed by more than 65,000 members and according to its website it:
A) “Works to ensure that the Internet and the Web that it is built on continues to develop as an open platform that empowers people to share ideas and connect in new and innovative ways.”
B) “Serves the economic, social, and educational needs of individuals throughout the world, today and in the future.”
3 Internet Architecture Board (IAB)
Established in 1992, the Internet Architecture Board is a descendant of ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency). ARPA is credited with linking together four computers in 1969, a breakthrough that most technological-evangelists believe was the birth of the Internet. Nevertheless, when the Internet became public and commercialized, ARPA was dissolved and the IAB took its place.
The IAB consists of a panel of elected officials. Who elects these officials, however, is unclear. As the Internet expands and becomes more influential, the IAB oversees the technological and engineering developments. It maintains global systems and technical standards, such as Transmission Control Protocol.
2 The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
Established in 1986 by the Internet Architecture Board, the IETF consists of Internet administrators, designers, vendors, researchers and individuals “dedicated to making the Internet work better.” It aims to improve Internet technology protocols and provides relevant, high-quality documents that influence how people design and manage the Internet, especially when it comes to routing, transport, and security. In other words, the IETF is the Web’s version of the Ministry of Information. However, “high quality, relevant documents” aimed at influencing the attitude of the public also goes by another name: propaganda. Is it a conspiratorial smoking gun that the Internet Architecture Board created the IETF?
1 Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)
Established in 1998, ICANN is the sticky, spider-silk that holds the Web together. Without ICANN, the Internet would have no form. Users would float in space and drift in a void of information. From Web addresses to IP addresses, ICANN is the Web’s official GPS system; it makes sure that no two connections have the same name. According to WhoIsHostingThis, despite being a non-profit organization ICANN was worth $100 million in 2011.
There’s no hierarchy as to which company controls the Internet. The organizations are more like feudal states. The Internet is structured around relationships derived from the holding of “land” (information) in exchange for service or labor – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers draws the map, the Internet Architectural Board maps the territory, Google produces the search engine, and Apple creates the products that connect to the system.
So where does that leave us?